Elon Law scholar has a bone to pick with the USDA

A law review article by Assistant Professor Tammi S. Etheridge takes aim at the way two government agencies, without congressional approval and despite potential conflicts of interest, agreed to co-regulate the production and sale of meat substitutes.

Assistant Professor Tammi Etheridge

To understand the importance of Tammi Etheridge’s legal research, ask yourself this question: are you more likely to buy a package of chicken tenders that reads “cell-cultured chicken” or one that’s labeled “synthetic meat”?

What if the way you describe those chicken tenders is mandated by the federal agency that exists in part to support the multibillion-dollar beef and poultry industries? And how would you feel if that same agency gets a say in how companies operate their production facilities, even when cell-cultured meat doesn’t involve the slaughter of animals?

Get the picture?

Etheridge, an assistant professor of law at Elon University School of Law, hopes you do, and she outlines the history, context, and potential global benefits to the production of substitute meat in “What’s the Beef? The FDA, USDA, and Cell-Cultured Meat” published this spring by the Washington & Lee Law Review.

Etheridge explains in her article the scientific process by which new companies are using harvested cells from living animals to develop consumer products that replicate the taste and texture of meat derived from butchered livestock. The lab-grown meat market is expected to grow to $140 billion over the next decade, making it a “significant industry disruptor.”

The article points to federal law that clearly defines when the U.S. Department of Agriculture can claim regulatory authority over companies that raise, slaughter, and package animals for public consumption. Cell-cultured meat is outside that authority, Etheridge writes.

Yet the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in 2018 that each sought exclusive regulatory oversight over lab-grown meat. Congress never fully addressed the dispute and less than a year later the two agencies agreed to joint oversight. The FDA would evaluate materials and processes in cell harvesting while the USDA would be responsible for the oversight of production and the labeling of food products.

Etheridge described this agreement as “inappropriate” for any number of reasons. Oversight authority is a power delegated by Congress, she writes, and the FDA already is better equipped to handle regulation under current statutory authority.

The FDA also should have complete control over the regulation of all foods produced via cellular agriculture because it lacks close ties with the meat processors and agribusiness lobbyists with clients who stand to lose millions of dollars each year if the market for lab-grown meat takes off.

It’s up to lawmakers to change the current arrangement, Etheridge concludes.

“Ultimately, the goal should be to reduce interest group manipulation and its harmful effects on consumers, so agencies can return to their proper roles of advancing the interests of the people,” she writes. “To that end, Congress must act to ensure that any agency partnerships are both necessary and appropriate.”

Etheridge joined the Elon Law faculty in 2021 after teaching law at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. She is a Greensboro native with scholarly interests in the areas of administrative law, food and drug law, and health law.

Etheridge brings to the classroom practice experience in complex commercial litigation and product liability law, plus teaching experience and a publication list that includes articles in law journals at Georgetown and Michigan.

The Washington & Lee Law Review published “What’s the Beef?” as part of its first volume dedicated to showcasing the work of Black authors. The Law Review noted how every featured article was the products of either the Lutie A. Lytle Black Women Law Faculty Workshop and Writing Retreat or the John Mercer Langston Black Male Law Faculty Writing Workshop.